Sunday, 14 August 2016

Labour unity is essential and possible. Needs wisdom and courage from both sides.

Last week I wrote a blogpost here, in which I called for the Labour Party to unite under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn (I make the assumption - which is widely held - that Corbyn will be elected again when the result of the leadership election is announced on 24 September).

Over 10,000 people have read my blogpost in the last week. A completely unprecedented response for me. It is understandable that people are interested in the subject; the alternative is impotence of the left and no prospect of defeating the Tories for the foreseeable future.

By no means everyone agrees with what I wrote. I had hundreds of responses which fall into three roughly equal groups.

One group say variants of “NO, NEVER, we can never unify with those Trotskyite bastards”.

Another group say along the lines of “NO, NEVER, we can never unify with those Blairite bastards”.

A third group say they like the idea of unity. However, this group is divided between those who think it a good idea but impossible to achieve and those who - like me - can see it is very hard to achieve but who recognise that it is essential and are determined, even desperate, to find a way.

Everyone who cares about the future of the Labour Party needs to be thinking about this now, it cannot wait until 24 September. What happens immediately after the announcement will have profound consequences. Corbyn must use his victory speech to reach out meaningfully to his opponents in the party. The major figures among his opponents, including Owen Smith, Hilary Benn and Angela Eagle must call for unity and agree to serve under Corbyn and fight the real enemy, the Tories.

There is deep bitterness and a profound lack of trust throughout the Labour Party. If this is to be healed it will require wisdom and courage from many individuals. Those at the top of the party can take the first necessary steps to healing on 24 September.

Corbyn should deal head on and in a genuinely conciliatory way, with all the main criticisms of him. These are not matters of policy (Smith has largely accepted Corbyn’s policies except for Trident, on which there has been a free vote). They primarily concern his leadership style. One much repeated criticism is that his own shadow ministers have found it difficult to gain access to speak to him. This is a real issue and it should and can be dealt with.

Another example, is that some of Corbyn’s critics allege he has a “problem with women”. This may or may not be true but the mere appearance that it may be true is damaging. Why not offer to appoint one of his critics to a senior role - with good access to him - to show that he takes this issue seriously?

A huge responsibility will lie on 24 September with the most senior Labour MPs who have opposed Corbyn. They all say that their primary aim is to defeat the Tories and to have a Labour Government. The only way they can demonstrate that they are genuine about that and not more concerned about endlessly waging the internal war in the party, is to immediately accept the result of the leadership election and agree to serve again under Corbyn.

The senior MPs need to be pragmatic. They need to show statesmanship. They need to distance themselves for the 10 or so MPs who have a tunnel-visioned ideological hatred of Corbyn and who will never be reconciled to him as leader and who will continue forever to do everything they can to undermine him.

On 24 September, the Labour Party will face an existential crisis. If it splits in some form or if it is plunged into further internal strife, so that the election will have solved nothing, then it will be a disaster for all Labour supporters and will delight the Tories.

Labour must learn from the discipline of the Tories, who currently present a united front despite their recent very deep divisions, both political and personal.

Unity of the Labour Party will be difficult to achieve but it is essential to achieve, so a way must be found. It will need wisdom and courage at all levels of the party but the first necessary steps must be taken on 24 September by Corbyn himself and the senior Labour MPs who opposed him.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

How to save the Labour Party - a contribution to the debate we should be having

It seems very likely that Jeremy Corbyn will be re-elected as leader of the Labour Party on Saturday 24 September. It is unlikely, however, that his re-election will end the crisis in the party. It is quite possible that his opponents will not accept the result. This may mean they set up a new party or a new parliamentary group or they undermine and challenge Corbyn until they finally get their way. 

The country urgently needs a functioning Labour Party. It seems obvious that if Labour is to prosper it needs both Corbyn and Owen Smith, his opponent for the leadership, together with the other MPs who oppose Corbyn. The choice should not be either/or. 

Corbyn can do things that Smith and the other MPs cannot. He has, for example, engaged 100s of 1,000s of people into politics, so that the Labour Party is now the largest political party in Europe. It would be stupid for Labour to jeopardise this achievement.

However, many of Corbyn’s supporters overlook the importance of Smith and the MPs. They have their mandates, achievements, abilities and experience. For many, they also have a credibility that Corbyn does not.

Why is the argument within Labour so bitter?

I am a left-leaning middle-aged member of the solid middle-class and naturally I know plenty of others in the same demographic. In my experience, the overwhelming majority of this group cannot abide Corbyn; they either loathe him or damn him by patronising.

I have met, through supporting Corbyn, plenty of others who tend to be further down the social scale (I doubt there are many home owners among them) and are quite often younger. This group find Corbyn inspiring. 

At a meeting I heard a middle-aged woman who said she struggled to make ends meet and she felt that Corbyn was the first politician for a long time who really cared about people like her. She said he gave her hope. (Hope is a word you often hear from Corbyn supporters. Those who are comfortable tend to underestimate the political importance of hope for others less fortunate.)

The debate between the Corbynites and the anti-Corbynites resembles a bitter marital row. Lots of shouting. No real listening. No one caring who overhears. Nobody caring about the truth any longer - both sides just wanting victory at whatever cost.

Perhaps the party is gripped by “the narcissism of small differences”. This term was coined by Sigmund Freud in 1917. It was his term for his observation that people with minor differences between them can be more combative and hateful than those with major differences. 

The differences between the two camps are relatively small. Corbyn and Smith substantially agree on all policies, except one; Smith has effectively adopted Corbyn’s platform. The exception, replacing Trident, is important but has nothing like the salience now that it did during the Cold War. In any event, Labour MPs were allowed a free vote on this.

This leadership contest has been triggered not because of disagreement over policy but fundamentally because Labour MPs do not like Corbyn’s leadership. Smith’s pitch is that he can deliver Corbyn’s policies better than Corbyn because he would be a better leader than Corbyn.

Compare this to the division in the Tory party only some weeks ago. Ministers lied over the most serious issue to face the country for decades. Ministers accused each other of lying. And now with the discipline that has made the Tory Party the most electorally successful party anywhere in the world, the Tories are, seemingly, united again.

Those who cannot see beyond their opposition to Corbyn should reflect. If Corbyn is re-elected, breaking the party would be an act of political madness. Under First-Past-the-Post divided parties cannot prosper. Challenging Corbyn again would be another act of wilful self-harm. The members will go on re-electing him as long as they see the MPs - and the media - as having undermined him.

So, this is how to save the Labour Party.
  1. Corbyn to show magnanimity in victory
  2. Smith to announce that he will now pursue his desire for a Labour Government by serving under Corbyn and to make it clear that he fully accepts the result
  3. All those who left the Shadow Team to do the same as Smith 
  4. Everyone in the Labour Party up and down the country to seek out the common ground with those who opposed them 
  5. Everyone to stop the insults (each side thinks the other side is worse and this applies to mainstream media as well as social media and elsewhere)
  6. Target the Tories morning, noon and night.